I was in the city that morning.
Back up. I have the annoying tendency that all current and former New Yorkers have to refer to New York City as, simply, "the city." As if there is no other city but "the city", and that everyone else on the face of the earth will agree with me/us that New York is, by mutual, worldwide, consent, "the city." Everywhere else is "out of town" (i.e. "Jersey").
So, I was in the city that morning. It was a Tuesday and it was beautiful. Cool, autumnal, bright and sunny. A perfect day for just about anything, including evil. That's how it started out, but of course, as you all know, that's not how it ended.
I crossed the street from St. Thomas' Episcopal and entered my office building at 666 Fifth Avenue. The entrance isn't really on Fifth Avenue, but rather, both of the entrances are on 52nd and 53rd Streets. Lots of buildings in the city do that. That way they can rent out the ground floor fronts as expensive retail space. They're not dumb.
When I got off the elevator at our 17th floor reception area Barbara, the receptionist, rather blandly announced that a plane had just "hit the World Trade Center." Oh well, I thought, some idiot must've plowed their Piper Cub into the side of it. I expressed my thoughts to Barbara and she said, "No, you don't understand, it was a real plane." I was horrified. I went back to the elevator vestibule and caught the next down elevator. I ran out into the middle of Fifth Avenue. There were fire engines and police cars and ambulances and anything else with a siren or flashing lights whizzing around me, heading downtown towards the catastrophe. The street was quickly filling with other spectators, more obstacles the emergency vehicles had to dodge on their way downtown... to Hell.
And then the 2nd plane hit the south tower. The plane entered the building from the south, over the harbor. We couldn't see it approaching. We were too far away for that. But we saw what happened next. We could see the explosion blowing out the north face, the fire and smoke bursting forth through the facade, even though we were miles away, in mid-town. It was like watching it through a telescope, though, from our elevated perch, in the middle of one of New York's busiest streets, one block north of St. Patrick's Cathedral and Rockefeller Center.
Then a horrible thought occurred to me. "This isn't over." And I looked to my left, down 53rd Street, towards the East River. There, just a few blocks away, was a mighty tempting target for hatred-fueled terrorists who might be hell-bent on bringing down American Capitalism. Citigroup Center is the most distinctive skyscraper on the East Side of Manhattan, north of the Chrysler Building. It's sleek, boxy, with that distinctive slanted roof and, above all, it's tall. Mighty tall. And a nice, tasty, American Imperialist target.
I went back upstairs and called my brother, Bruce, who worked a few blocks away. We organized a plan of escape. At that moment there were millions who would be running for the exits. It was pointless to join them. The TV's in the conference rooms were showing CNN live and we knew that Rudy Giuliani had ordered the tunnels to be closed as a precautionary measure. We'd never get out through the Lincoln, Holland, Battery or Queen's Midtown Tunnels. Bruce had driven in that morning, thank God! We decided to wait a little while, to "see what else might happen" and to let the situation settle down a little.
Along around 1:30 we started walking across town to the West Side. It was like a scene out of a science-fiction movie. People were gathered around in clumps, next to parked trucks on side streets, listening intently to one of the few "all news" radio stations which were still on the air. Most tv and radio was out, of course, because all the major NY stations had, over the years, relocated their broadcast towers to the roof of Tower One, the north tower, that had the huge broadcast mast on it's roof. And when Tower One went down, so did the signals of most of the stations in the city. Only CNN was still coming through live. And maybe WCBS. I forget exactly. By then we knew that the Pentagon had been hit, too. And that another plane had gone down, somewhere in Pennsylvania. We'd learned that two of the planes had taken off from Boston, and that the other two had been hijacked from Newark and Dulles.
I had been in my daily commuter bus, heading up the NJ Turnpike, going past Newark airport that morning, at almost exactly the same time that some of the hijackers were boarding their flight there.
Evil had come very close to us that morning. In the days and weeks that followed, I'd find out more about exactly how close it had come.
Bruce and I eventually got to his parking lot, on the West Side, near the Hudson. Bruce didn't know what to do. I looked north, towards the George Washington Bridge and, for just a brief second, I saw the tops of 18-wheelers rolling west, heading across the river, towards New Jersey. I told him to drive north on the West Side Highway.
We somehow or other were waved past two police checkpoints and, within minutes we were crossing the Bridge, heading towards New Jersey and safety. My baby brother was intent on getting over that bridge as quickly as possible. We both knew, without saying it, that it could be yet another target. There were no guarantees that the horror was over yet.
As he drove, I looked past him, and over the side of the bridge, towards the harbor and the south end of the island.
There was an enormous hole in the sky. Where once there had been two giants jutting up from nothing and piercing the heavens, there was only a giant, unending, plume of noxious smoke, rising from the hole in the ground and billowing downriver, over the harbor, through the Narrows, and out into the Atlantic.
All I could think was, "thank God the wind is from the northwest."
And every day, for the next few weeks, the smoke continued to pour out of the hole in the ground, under the hole in the sky, and the wind continued to come from the northwest, pushing the noxious cloud out to sea.
Further confirmation for me, as though any were necessary, that there is a God.
No lesson today. Just reporting.
Life is a real gift.
Go hug somebody you love.